Payment Collection Practices in Freelance Translation
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The objective of this article is
to improve communication between freelance translators
and translation agencies on various payment issues.
It is based on my first-hand experience in freelance
translation from English to Russian and vice-versa
for 45 translation agencies in 12 countries (USA
- 11, UK - 7, Russia - 5, Japan - 4, Belgium -
3, Czech Republic - 3, France - 3, Germany - 2,
Hong Kong - 2, Israel - 1, Netherlands - 3, Sweden
- 1) and 20 direct clients from four countries
(Russia - 14, France - 1, Israel - 1, USA - 3)
from July 1999 to July 2003, with an approximate
total word count of 2 million source words.
Practically all freelance translators are familiar
with the frustration of spending too much time
and effort collecting fees for translation. The
optimization of this process may therefore be
of interest to many of my colleagues.
This problem can be approached in two ways:
1. Thoroughly check the client's payment practices
BEFORE accepting a job
2. Professional debt collection AFTER the job
has been completed and delivered to the client.
If the first step is implemented well enough,
the second step will be unnecessary. See Fig.1.
Let's focus on the first step.
When you are approached by a new agency, the first
thing you need to do is check its payment practices
on all current payment practice databases. I know
of five of them: www.proz.com/blueboard, www.tcrlist.com,
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pp_dist, and the
lists regularly e-mailed to subscribers by www.translationdirectory.com
The last three information sources are free. The
first two charge a little bit, but the information
is well worth it.
Then you should visit the agency's website and
see if it provides all necessary contact info
(full street address, phone, fax, e-fax, mobile,
e-mail address) and a list of the agency's clients
and client testimonials, preferably with contact
info. If the agency has no website, this is a
bad sign (for example, the notoriously non-paying
Polylingua from the Czech Republic). Another bad
sign is a free e-mail address.
Pay attention to the agency's memberships in professional
associations, such as ATA for USA agencies and
ITI for UK agencies. An agency should be registered
with its national chamber of commerce and have
a registration number.
You can ask the potential client to provide you
with this information if it is not published on
its website. A client with good intentions and
a first-class reputation will be happy to cooperate.
I recommend asking for this information immediately
after receiving a P.O. or contract. Some other
important pieces of information to be collected
include: How long has the client been in business?
How long have they been at their current location?
Who owns the business?
If the agency has positive payment practice records
in the above databases and willingly provides
the information you need, you can accept the job
without worry. Most probably you will have no
problems with collection.
Now let's focus on the second part
of your taskprofessional debt collection
from problem clients. It is most important to
learn to differentiate between "non-malicious"
and "malicious" delays of payment. The
typical reasons for "non-malicious"
delay are usually as follows:
1. Poor organization at the translation agency.
Usually one person is responsible for placing
translation assignments, another for approving
payments, and a third for executing payments via
a bank. In most cases you will never contact persons
#2 and #3, but they are key figures in the payment
process. It often turns out, as the Russian saying
goes, that "the right hand does not know
what the left is doing."
2. Poor communication: You send a reminder to
your translation manager. He forwards your reminder
to the accountant. You receive no response from
either one (the translation manager thinks payment
is not his area of responsibility; the accountant
never communicates with freelance translators
because this is the translation manager's responsibility).
Poor communication undermines trust and robs time
from both parties. In fact, poor communication
is a result of poor organization.
3. Mistakes in the bank application for a wire
transfer. For example, several of my direct clients
and some of the agencies I've worked with have
been confused by such terms as "correspondent
bank" and "beneficiary's bank,"
and sent the funds to the wrong bank. This resulted
in time lost for both parties and delay in payment.
In my four years' practice, non-malicious delays
for periods exceeding one month were caused by
five agencies; mistakes in banking details accounted
for five further cases; receipt of a smaller amount
than promised without explanation occurred in
only one case (World Link Technologies, USA).
Do not mistake poor communication and
organization and banking mistakes for an attempt
at non-payment. Never be too harsh on non-malicious
non-payers. They are probably working as well
as they can and a harsh tone will not help the
situation. In fact, you may offend someone and
lose a good client. Late payment is better than
no job at all. If you cannot differentiate between
non-malicious late payers and malicious non-payers,
you could lose a valuable client by being too
harsh during the collection process. The trick
is to collect the debt in such a way that your
professional relationship is not damaged, so you
can remain partners for many years to come.
"Malicious" delay means
the agency is seeing if it can get away without
paying you. The agency may be testing how far
you are ready to go to collect the payment and
how professional you are in debt collection. This
situation is typical in uncivilized business environments
such as Russia and Eastern Europe, but there are
malicious non-payers among USA and UK agencies,
as well. This is exactly how STB (UK) operates.
The key words here are "politeness"
and "persistency." You should make the
client understand that they have no chance of
getting away with non-payment. I use the following
1) after a 3 day delay of paymenta polite
reminder by e-mail
2) 10 day delaya polite reminder by fax
3) 20 daysa telephone call
4) 30 daysa fax/snail-mail with a polite
promise of exposure on the worldwide translation
scene and legal procedures.
Signs indicating an attempt at malicious non-payment
1. The agency does not respond to your repeated
e-mail or fax reminders
2. The agency suddenly stops answering your phone
3. The agency says the payment was made, but does
not provide banking confirmation of the fund transfer
when you request it (this is a standard banking
document containing fund transfer details, with
a unique reference number. Depending on the country,
it is called a SWIFT copy or an advice of funds
When you are sure you are facing a case of non-payment
(usually confirmed by complaints of other translators
published in some of the above-mentioned payment
practice databases), you should send a politely
worded list of further actions you will take for
collection. This list is a very effective collection
tool, but you should use it only if you are 100%
sure of the malicious nature of the problem. This
is your ultimate weapon, so use it discreetly.
This list of collection actions can include very
polite assurances (not threats!) to expose the
1. its clients
2. its national chamber of commerce
3. its national association of translators/translation
4. the ITI or ATA
5. The five payment practice databases.
You should also assure them you will file a lawsuit
through a local lawyer, hire a local debt collection
agency, and contact the local chapter of the Better
Business Bureau, if the problem occurs in the
If the agency does not react, start to implement
your exposure planone action a week, with
notifications sent to the debtor.
My statistics after four years of
active freelance translation are as follows. Among
45 translation agencies in 12 countries, and 20
direct clients from 4 countries, I met only one
malicious (and notorious) non-payerPolylingua
(Prague, Czech Republic), which is managed by
Marta Cettlova. I accepted two small jobs from
Polylingua during my second year of work without
properly researching the agency. Only after completing
the jobs and encountering a payment problem did
I discover that the agency had been exposed by
my colleagues on the aforementioned databases!
Luckily, the lost amount totaled only 0.4% of
the fees I earned during these years.
1. Concentrate your efforts on checking the reliability
of a client (AFTER receipt of a contract or PO,
but before doing the job), not on collection after
2. When collecting your debts, be polite, flexible
and persistent. To preserve your share of the
market, do not call in the big guns unless absolutely
3. Poor communication and organization of the
payment process are much more common problems
in translation agencies than malicious attempts
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